Teachers in Maryland’s Montgomery County formed Las Caza Vacunas – The Vaccine Hunters – to help people find shots. The group’s work became more urgent after eligible Blacks and Latinos were turned away at vaccination sites
By Marisa Arbona-Ruiz
Maria Peterson didn’t think it was a big deal to get her Covid-19 vaccination. She went online, made an appointment, got the shot and announced it on social media. But the responses to her post made Peterson realize it wasn’t so simple for others. She was inspired to help.
The teacher, who is of Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage, never imagined that she and some colleagues would become a recognized force for getting people vaccinated, and inspire a national dialogue about fair distribution of the life-saving shots..
Her advocacy began with her colleague Maisie Lynch’s idea to start “a little go-to spreadsheet” with hyperlinks to vaccine clinics. Lynch tasked Peterson with monitoring appointment openings at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland, where Peterson got her own vaccination. “We were just sharing among friends,” she recalled.
Soon, Lynch, Peterson and six other full-time teachers banded together to help the community as The Vaccine Hunters, or Las Caza Vacunas in Spanish. “In our first three days, we [made] 200 appointments for seniors,” Peterson said.
From a little spreadsheet to a big crusade
The work expanded when the group came up against a wave of discrimination that’s been hitting Black and Brown people, from California to Texas and Florida to Rhode Island. In full-on teacher fashion, the group responded by arming people and vaccine providers in Maryland’s populous Montgomery County — where most of the teachers live or work — with knowledge to counter wrongful denials of vaccines.
In an interview on Zoom, Peterson held up a handful of fresh notes — reminders of new complaints and pleas for help she needed to organize — as a sample of the unfinished work in the fight against inequality and the bureaucracy shrouding the vaccine rollout.
“You know, if the ice cream man can hit every neighborhood,” she said, “why can’t they bring clinics to the community?”
The Vaccine Hunters communicate daily with each other. They share notes about each person they help. And each day they act as liaisons between clinics and a public confused by a vaccination program loaded down with federal, state and local rules. They often work late into the evening to secure appointments for people.
An eye-opening journey
Four of the Vaccine Hunters are bilingual and three are Latinas. They quickly recognized an imbalance when data revealed more vaccines going to affluent white residents in Montgomery County. In the heavily Latino and Black 20904 ZIP code, they saw high rates of COVID-19 infections — but fewer vaccinations of Black and Brown people. The Vaccine Hunters began a crash course in advocacy.
They found that some Latinos and seniors had no reliable transportation to cover what could be long distances to pharmacies or mass vaccination sites. For many, seeking a vaccination was a half-day undertaking. For workers, it meant lost wages. The teachers began pressing politicians for a mass vaccination site closer to home in Montgomery County. (Such sites began operating earlier this month.)
The Vaccine Hunters also began fielding calls from Spanish-speakers who said they’d been turned away at specific CVS and Giant Food pharmacies. They were eligible for vaccines and had proper identification, but some pharmacies were asking for letters from employers and Social Security numbers. One person, Peterson said, was told that the vaccine was not free.
“So, we now had to teach Spanish-speakers about their rights,” Peterson said.
Stand your ground
Peterson said she was alarmed by one incident in a Giant Food supermarket in Frederick, Maryland, where not long ago a Ku Klux Klan billboard stood beside a country road.
For Salvadoran immigrant Lucia Rodríguez, an unfriendly vibe was palpable as she stood in a pharmacy line with her father, Oscar Morales, waiting for his vaccination appointment. They had driven an hour to make it on time.
Rodríguez recalls that as her father’s turn came up, the woman behind the counter “no levantaba la cara,” (wouldn’t look up at them). The attendant told them she was still busy with earlier appointments. When Morales went back to the vaccine line, Rodríguez said, the woman glared at them and rudely yelled, “Are you going to buy something?”
Rodríguez said the attendant then greeted other customers, who were white, inviting them to wait in seats she never offered to Rodríguez and her father. Time passed, Rodríguez said, before the attendant whispered to a colleague who also refused to help Morales, uttering the same excuse of being too busy. Still more time passed, Rodriguez said, and more people got their shots before the attendant finally requested Morales’ insurance information and identification.
Oscar Morales had been registered as an essential worker — at the time one of the only groups eligible for vaccinations. But the attendant refused to acknowledge his pay stub and instead asked for an employer’s letter confirming his status as “essential.” She then denied him a vaccine because he was under 65 years old. Instead of asking if he had any qualifying health factors — which in his case would’ve been his diabetes — the attendant showed him a paper with vaccination rules, written in English, that he couldn’t read. Rodríguez called a friend, who in turn alerted The Vaccine Hunters. Rodríguez recalled forcing back waves of humiliation and indignation as she dialed for help. “I stood there all this time, watching the whole world get vaccinated.”
After another person of color was refused, her father gave up. They left, enraged and feeling powerless, Rodríguez said.
The Vaccine Hunters intervene to de-escalate these situations. They reach out to managers, public affairs officers, and diversity directors of clinics. For Morales and Rodriguez, Peterson called the pharmacist and attempted to go over the rules on the state webpage with her. Peterson recalled that the pharmacist said she’d call back, but didn’t. Peterson also called the manager, who said he’d look into the matter and call her back the next day, and that Morales could return then. The manager has yet to call, she said.
Peterson explained that Morales handles dangerous waste for a construction company, which put him in the “all other public safety” category of Maryland’s vaccine distribution bulletin, dated March 5 and posted on health.maryland.gov website.
We tell people to stand your ground and don’t leave. Ask to talk to a supervisor
When palabra reached out to the regional communications and community relations manager at Giant Food Inc., he declined to comment. After palabra emailed a corporate spokesperson, the regional manager sent a statement that neither acknowledged the rude treatment of Morales, nor the pharmacy’s failure to ask him proper health questions. The statement said the company spoke to “a vaccine hunter” about the matter, and reiterated the age restriction at the time and said Morales wasn’t an essential worker. Peterson said she’s had no such conversations with anyone from Giant.
“Who knows how many people have been denied vaccines?” Peterson asked. “The trust is gone after the difficult time.”
Rodríguez and her father refused to return to the Giant store, now suspicious, she said, of what they “might put in the shot.”
The Vaccine Hunters said they’ve spent much time educating pharmacists. Peterson said there’s a problem with “power-tripping” pharmacists who personally decide who gets vaccines. (Media accounts nationwide cite similar incidents at pharmacies in many states.) Some pharmacy workers ask excessive questions or leave out important ones that might qualify people, Peterson said, or make up rules like accepting only pay stubs with company logos. “We tell people to stand your ground and don’t leave. Ask to talk to a supervisor.”
Peterson listed tips for avoiding problems with identification:
- Bring an ID card showing your name and address. No photo is necessary.
- If you don’t have ID, bring a current electric, phone or water bill with a home address. The name on the bill should match the name on the appointment.
- Social Security numbers or health insurance are not required; pharmacies and clinics cannot deny vaccines to eligible customers who don’t have such documentation. A federal program covers uninsured people getting vaccinations, and clinics will sometimes ask for Social Security numbers to verify that someone is uninsured.
A lesson in cultural competency
Registering for a vaccine appointment in Maryland requires filling out an online form called the PrepMod. But Peterson, who’s also a certified translator, said the state’s form was so poorly translated on the webpage that it confused many Spanish speakers. She held up screen images she recorded, showing inaccurate translations like the word carrera over a box that in English says “race” — as in racial heritage. In some Latin American countries, carrera means a competitive race, or a professional career. Also, the webpage’s navigational “back” button was translated as espalda, or a person’s back.
“It’s like the errors I see from my students,” Peterson said. “Sooo Google Translate… .It’s infuriating!”
In the minds of The Vaccine Hunters, it raises questions about government contracts in the vaccine rollout. “We tried to find out who the contractor is but they wouldn’t tell us,” Peterson said, noting dozens of complaints filed over the translation work.
In a letter sent to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan in early February, The Vaccine Hunters brought up vaccination inequities and PrepMod translation errors “that contribute to the marginalization of the Latino community.” Hogan did not respond. But in early March, Hogan appointed Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead to lead Maryland’s Vaccine Equity Task Force. The Vaccine Hunters met with her earlier this month. Translation errors have been addressed, Peterson said, although some were still visible on the state’s Spanish-language vaccine registration pages as of April 13th.
Health communications 101: Don’t reinvent the wheel – steer it
Lucienne Lopez Loman grew up in Mexico City, in a colonial neighborhood two houses down from the home of the late Frida Kahlo — her iconic Casa Azul. After migrating to the U.S., she became an independent, professional translator. She’s worked on health campaigns with agencies of the National Institutes of Health, which by the 1990s had established these tips for multicultural outreach:
- Sixth-grade level language for English and fourth-grade level for Spanish.
- Words that are easily understood across nuances and dialects, often called “broadcast Spanish.”
- Short statements and bullet points are encouraged.
- Understand the people you’re reaching out to.
“Latinos often come (to the United States) because of terrible situations,” Loman said. “Some had little or no formal education in their own language, let alone English.” Also, because “many coming from extreme corruption don’t trust governing systems … or hospitals,” it’s important to reach out by going where they are.
Loman said, “Government and health communications are most effective when they make a conscious and deliberate effort to hire translators… . Such blatantly poor automated translation of the (PrepMod) is the sign of really lazy people.
“It’s not necessarily being malicious to use automation,” Loman added, “but to assume people will figure it out in English or that Americanized English is perfectly translatable and transferable into Spanish is unacceptable.”
“If they care,” she said, emphatically, “to communicate with people of other cultures and backgrounds and languages, they would find a way to do it. So, it’s indifference.”
To help correct all this, the Vaccine Hunters have lobbied for prominent, multilingual signs and posters at all clinic locations and pharmacies that remind people that there are no requirements for ID, insurance or proof of citizenship. They want signage featuring a multilingual Equity Hotline in stores and clinics, so people who believe they’re being denied vaccines can immediately call for help. The hotline number should also be included on state vaccine signs. And the state should provide access to multilingual responders who can de-escalate situations in pharmacies and clinics. The teachers are also urging that vaccine clinic websites be consistent, with accurate, multilingual translations and clear guidelines that detail eligibility and list the federally required documentation customers need to show.
The educators have made a difference. In response to their outreach, CVS pledged to work with The Vaccine Hunters to address potential vaccine inequities.
In a statement to palabra, the company said, “We have had ongoing productive discussions with the leaders of Vaccine Hunters [of] Maryland over the last several weeks. We applaud the work they are doing in the community and look forward to working together on this issue.”
By its count, The Vaccine Hunters has helped secure some 7,500 vaccinations. The group has been lauded in a Montgomery County government proclamation. Now the teachers are taking on a big new advocacy role: Setting up targeted pop-up clinics in partnership with Holy Cross Hospital. The first one, aimed at Black and Brown communities, opens April 21st at the Washington Spanish Bilingual SDA Church in Silver Spring.
“We feel that it’s an honor and a responsibility just as citizens of this world to speak up for those who don’t have a voice … . It’s humbling,” Peterson said, her voice cracking with emotion. “You make these connections with these people, and you feel their pain, and you feel their needs for the vaccine and how much it means to them. And you remember them.”
Contact The Vaccine Hunters / Las Caza Vacunas at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Marisa Arbona-Ruiz is an Emmy Award-winning bilingual producer and journalist. She’s a contributing cohost on NPR’s Alt.Latino podcast, a voice announcer and musician who can be found breaking into song and dance on random concert stages. Find her on Instagram: @marisa.arbona.ruiz; Twitter: @MarisaArbona; and Facebook: @ArbonaWorksMedia.
This story originally ran in Palabra, a member of the URL Media Network.